Thomas McGuane: “Weight Watchers” from TNY, 11/4/13

TNY Art by Grant Cornett

TNY Art by Grant Cornett

I have no real complaints about my upbringing. My parents were self-absorbed and never knew where I was, which meant that I was free, and I made good use of that freedom. I’ve been asked if I was damaged by my family life, and the answer is a qualified no; I know I’ll never marry, and, halfway through my life, I’m unable to imagine letting anyone’s new stay in my house for more than a night – and preferably not a whole night. Rolling over in the morning and finding… Let’s not go there. I build houses for other people, and it works for me.

I’ve run hot and cold with Thomas McGuane stories (he, like Tessa Hadley, has made frequent appearances in TNY over the past couple of years). I was running cold on this one until I read what Betsy at The Mookse and the Gripes had to say, at which point I thought I should probably go back and read his other stories that ran cold to find out what I’d missed. It’s not running cold any more.

The title is loaded with meaning, as all of us could stand to lose a little weight. And that isn’t referring to pounds of fat. The story purports to tell the story of a father’s visit to his son, a visit precipitated by mom kicking him out of the marital home because he’d gained too much weight. But that’s just structure; functionally, it’s a biography of a family.

Per Tolstoy, every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, and these parents seem happily unhappy. They cheat on each other; they fight; they blame each other for the emptiness of their lives and find ways to punish each other for giving them what they want. The narrator is the product of this dysfunctional family; that is the weight he has had to lose, and he has; but that came at a cost of the ability to connect with other people.

He’s also lost the weight of his “fine education” to work as a contractor. Some of the most searing passages come from his observations about class in this country where we have historically insisted we are classless:

He felt that he had clambered up a few rungs, and his big fear was that I was clambering back down. As a tradesman – I run a construction crew – I had clearly fallen below the social class to which my father thought I should belong. He believed that fine education he’d paid for should have led me to greater abstraction, but while it’s true that the farther you get from an actual product the better your chances for economic success, I and many of my classmates wanted more physical evidence of our efforts. I had friends who’d trained as historians, literary scholars, and philosophers who were now shoeing horses, wiring houses, and installing toilets. There’d been no suicides so far.

When I finished the first read of this story, I thought, “Well, gee, this one didn’t go anywhere, did it.” That’s true; it’s more of an extended monologue than a narrative. Dad, kicked out by Mom, visits Son; Dad loses the weight required to return home; instead of returning home-home, he is returning to a hotel near home, as if on a trial basis. But it did go somewhere, just not in a plotwise direction.

I kept trying to link this to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf” but that doesn’t quite work. It is the general idea, though: two people who make a life out of torturing each other, and wouldn’t have it any other way. It’d be perfect, if it weren’t for the kid they’d screwed up.

Throughout, the son insists he’s not that damaged.

I like to be tired. In some ways, that’s the point of what I do. I don’t want to be thinking when I go to bed, or, if there is some residue from the day, I wanted to drain out and precipitate me into nothingness. I’ve always enjoyed to the idea of nonexistence. I view pets with extraordinary suspicion: we need to stay out of their lives.… It’s not that there’s anything wrong with my ability to communicate: I have a cell phone, but I only use it to call out.

I have mixed feelings about this, perhaps because in many ways I am this guy, right down to insisting my family wasn’t dysfunctional (and truth is my family isn’t anywhere near the craziness of the family in the story). I’ve been a lot happier since I gave up on trying to be “normal.” The internet helps me tremendously with this: I can be part of the world in a way I can handle. Where in “real” life I alternate between insecure reticence and inarticulate nonsense, when given time to form thoughts without someone waiting for me to hold up my end of the conversation (and without worrying about whether I’m making a strange face or I look like a bag lady or I’m in the way of someone more worthy of taking up space and time), I do ok. I said not so long ago that I wasn’t cut out for real time; neither was I cut out for real people. I do fine with virtual people, though. A lot of people think that doesn’t count. Maybe not. But for people like me and this narrator, we’ve found a way to live with ourselves that works for us. It may be your idea of hell. That’s fine; your life is our idea of hell, too, but we wouldn’t dream of telling you to go get yourself some therapy to fix it.

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